Tamie Dolny (1L)
You are prepared. You have watched Legally Blonde seven times and know that perms are not water-proof. You have not perfected your bend and snap, but are working on it. You stalked Lawstudents.ca with a blind passion. You memorized your schedule the moment U of T Law sent it to you. You taped it to your binder. You bought a binder. You bought highlighters. You bought different colored highlighters.
On the first day of law school, you walk up to an apathetic student handing out o-week kits, a mixture of dread and anticipation churning in your stomach. You sit down at your table and try to make a concerted effort at small talk for the next three hours, stumbling through the same school-age-occupation-dreams questions over and over again until it becomes a blur. It’s going to be okay, you pray. THIS IS GOING TO BE FUN.
During your first cold-call, your heart nearly explodes. You do not know the answer. The words vomit out of your mouth. Ten seconds pass. You realize you are still alive, barely breathing, clutching your left arm, and hyperventilating in the corner of Northrop Frye.
U of T Law is a brick to the face.
Before law school, you didn’t know that extracurriculars were competitive; your exposure to clubs involved sitting with friends, talking about poetry, pretending to be sophisticated. You realize quickly that your $33,000 tuition funds the school’s on-call psychiatrist, subsidized yoga, and therapy dogs. They even give you a happiness graph in your first week: “it will go down,” they warn. “This is a high point.” A happiness graph.
By the Ethics and Professionalism seminar, the lawyers talk about burnout and suicidal thoughts in front of an exhausted audience. The panelists discuss work-life balance. Your neighbours frantically scribble away at clinic applications.
At this point, you have become fully convinced that you will die by the age of thirty: from alcoholism, depression, or papercuts. If one of your professors gave an HH bounty for your life, you know someone would pull it off. They wouldn’t just pull it off: they would kill you, cover it up, learn five languages, and then, to boot, become the next Trudeau.
There is little worse than a toxic culture, and nothing worse than one you cannot change. The competition to get into this school is so tight that competition between those who do get in can feel suffocating. It becomes irritating to be dragged from event to event, constantly reminded that “grades aren’t everything” but, as the CDO cheerily informed us at our first event, “grades are everything.” Grades are everything. Your self-worth and self-esteem should be measured by your academic success over one short year. Your identity depends on this.
U of T Law places its students through such a killer program because they, honestly, want us to ‘succeed.’ They want the highest Bay Street placement rates, the most elite alum in Canada, the best articling percentages. U of T Law is it, they tell us repeatedly, drilling it into our heads until it becomes unconscious. You are at U of T Law. You have grit. You kill to win. You attack your opponent at the jugular.
My issue with this atmosphere is not the focus on success. I want to thrive, I want to be the best I can be. My issue is about the students who are left behind and trampled on in this mad rat race.
When a school pits students against each other on a curve that is often arbitrary—“your answers were all great,” the professors agree, “the difference between a P and an HH was so minimal this year!”—you have to wonder what is lost. When you worry whether sharing notes with a classmate means they etch out that higher mark that you crave—that you need, for your sense of self—it is a signal that competition is eroding your own kindness, your humility, and your identity.
This law school may teach us to be great lawyers, but it is not necessarily teaching us to be great human beings.
I constantly struggle between two aspects of my personality: the part of me that craves success—recognizes it, reveres it, no matter the cost—and the second aspect that wants to give back to society, to be the person my younger self needed. I often find it difficult to maintain a sense of who I am outside of my career path.
But my name is Tamie. My favourite feeling is biking at night in the summer, no hands on the handlebars. When I was a child, I wept after accidentally killing a frog while trying to catch it with a butterfly net at my cottage. I was constantly kicked out of classes in elementary, middle, and high school for laughing too much. My favourite number is four. My worst fear is shame: yet I have failed and been humiliated spectacularly in my life in too many ways to count. I like to think that it builds character.
What draws me to law is the ability to shape lives for the better: the human element. I don’t believe that competition makes us better people—maybe I’m a dirty hippy—but I look forward to this career because of the positive impact it can have on others, whether through business or human rights. We are the movers and shakers of our generation. We will change the world.
All I’m saying is that it’s easy to forget why we are doing this: why we are slogging along, collecting our marks, clawing at each other for a chance at a job, begging firms to mentor us into leaders. It is easy to forget that this should be a little bit fun: that yes, the material is dry and often boring, the competition is stiff, but there are people around you with incredible stories and beautiful, riveting eyes if you bother to glance over at them.
My suggestion is that all of these happiness graphs and depressing seminars and poor emotional outlooks are wrong. We will not be miserable and distraught ten years down the road, and our lives are not over because we chose a difficult career. In fact, they are enhanced for that very reason.
If it’s not hard, it’s not worth it. And in the words of Dr. Seuss: “Kid, you’ll move mountains.”